Second year blues…

Much has been written about the  dip in confidence and perhaps achievement commonly felt by PhD students during their second year . Apparently there is a now evidence for a similar problem in the second year of undergraduate degrees. An article by national teaching fellow Claire Milsom from Liverpool John Moore’s University in the Guardian Higher Education Network  reveals that many second year undergraduates experience a period of increased dissatisfaction, confusion about academic achievements and disengagement.

In 14 years as a personal tutor I have lost count of the number of times that I have provided tissues and sympathy to distressed second year tutees. I use the phrase “well, the 2nd year IS much harder than the 1st year because we spend the first year partly bringing everyone up to the same level”, but I’ve also heard colleagues say “the real work starts in the second year”, which is a slightly different way of presenting it! Whilst this offers an explanation, it doesn’t really deal with the complexity of the issue and nor does it offer constructive suggestions to the students.

Thinking back to my own second year as a physics student, and drawing upon many conversations with tutees, it is clear, as the Guardian article points out, that several things are at work. The assessment rate and frequency and complexity tend to increase. These assessments often become more discriminating (i.e. bits of them at least are harder) in order to provide more opportunity for all students to be challenged and this can mean that differing abilities within the cohort become more apparent to students as well as staff. On top of these thoughts surrounding your academic subject and progress, well meaning tutors start to ask questions like “what you want to do when you graduate?”. We do this out of concern for the future of our students, to prompt them to make the most of the university environment to develop “employment skills” (although it is also true that rates and destinations of graduates are an important metric used in league tables etc).. Finally, budgetary concerns may well be kicking in and the need to work part time in order to eat reduces “free” time. It is easy to see how this combination can lead to a feeling of being overwhelmed even before you add in any social or familial issues.

I don’t like seeing my students in this state, but apart from listening and providing tissues, it’s certainly true that I haven’t done much to be more constructive. The Guardian article suggests three ways that Universities could better support second year students:

  1.  an induction week for second years
  2. market the second year appropriately particularly over the long summer break in order to enthuse students towards upcoming content
  3. Ensure consistent academic support in terms of personal tutoring throughout the second year.

Whilst in my Department, we are still thinking about items 1 and 2, we have already made some changes to our personal tutoring system, primarily to improve effectiveness and consistency of support to all our undergraduate students. Of course every student needs a tutor, but not every academic necessarily need be a tutor. The default has been that tutees are spread out so that each academic staff member has only 1 or 2 tutees. But this year, staff were given the option of being a BSc or MSc tutor (admittedly we have very small numbers of students and so have a lot more flexibility here than many places). Those that expressed preference for tutoring undergraduates were then allocated a group of 4 or 5 students in each of year 1 and 2 and the meeting schedule changed to include both an opportunity for one to one meetings and termly group tutorial sessions facilitating peer support. Indeed these group sessions can be combined with other tutor groups.

A further opportunity to make these group sessions more meaningful has been provided by a change in the term structure at my institution this year to introduce “Enhancement Weeks” in the middle of the two long 11 week terms. The 6th week of term is now free from standard lectures and filled instead with opportunities to develop study and employment skills. On offer are activities such as: a software development course for environmental scientists, sessions on industrial placements, an entrepreneurship competition, leadership skills sessions and many others from both Departments and the University centre. Some students are obviously taking advantage of this week to develop such skills, although I have also heard much talk about recharging the batteries via sleep and catching up on assignments! Formally measuring the success of enhancement week is likely to be a non-trivial issue.

However, my most recent experience of enhancement week was positive. On a sunny Tuesday morning, our programme director and undergraduate tutor team provided a tutor facilitated session on Skills for Employment. The introduction talked about the kinds of skills that key employers in our field are looking for, and the importance of being able to provide evidence of these skills from a range of activities. The students, a mix of part 1 and part 2, then congregated with their tutors and discussed the kinds of evidence they could use in future job applications. It transpires that the current cohort of students are perhaps much more used to doing this than their lecturers were when they were students – after all personal statements on UCAS forms require much the same type of effort.  Particularly relevant to the “year 2 dip”, the group I was with discussed how even “failures” could be turned round to demonstrate positive qualities (self-development, persistence, reacting to feedback).

None of these actions are particularly profound or novel, but sometimes they don’t need to be. What made me most happy to see was the willingness of students to talk about their current and past challenges, the first year students seizing the opportunity to ask advice from the second years (how do you stop yourself getting stressed out by assignment deadlines), and the second years passing on tips to the first years (pay attention to vector calculus even if you can’t see the point – you need it next year). Building a strong community of students willing to engage in peer support, will offer another way of smoothing the lumps and bumps of student life, whether that happen in Year 2 or at any other time.